Who was the founder of Hastings?

As Hastings reaches its 150th birthday (7 June), a mystery surrounds the town’s earliest beginnings. 

When and where exactly was Hastings founded? Who named it and who can rightly claim to be its father? 

I discovered there is not one answer to the above questions.

While the Heretaunga Plain was settled by about 3,500 Māori gradually from between 1250 -1300 AD, and was considered a rich food source with its fertile soils and plentiful waterways, early European settlers were wary of the “endless shingle deposits and swamps”. 

Historian Russell Orr even suggests, “early settlers and planners would have done much better to have concentrated [Hastings] on the much more agreeable and practical site of Havelock North.

“The Tukituki Valley with its pleasant sloping hills and attractive river, would have been an idyllic site for the Hastings of the future.”

But in 1864, pastoral runholder and entrepreneur Thomas Tanner, had a different view. He saw the plains agricultural potential and by 1867 had gained a legal lease to a large amount of it and set out to sell some of the leases off.

“HOT PROSPECT,” he advertised, “ … 5 SECTIONS (100 acres each) on the Karamu Plains, about three miles from Havelock, two miles from the Karamu Pa, and three miles from Pakowai“ [Pakowhai]. Interestingly, he added, “the land is well situated, beyond the reach of any flood…” 

Tanner sold six leases, and including himself, the lease holders came to be known as the Twelve Apostlescontrolling 12 sections of land on the Heretaunga block. In 1870/71 they were then able to buy the entire block of 19,365 acres, which is the footprint Hastings is settled on today, and in large part is why Thomas Tanner is often cited as the town’s founder. 

Who was the founder of Hastings?

But then enter Francis Hicks. A  Cornish immigrant who left home aged 20 and worked on farms and goldfields in NSW and Otago, before arriving in Heretaunga in the 1860s. He bought his 100-acre block from Tanner in 1871 and had his nephew Tobias Hicks begin building a two-room General Store on the corner of what is now the intersection of Karamu and Heretaunga Streets.

Two years later, when the Government wanted to run a railway through the plains to the south, Hicks with “some perspicacity”, says historian Orr, cleverly gifted 1.5 acres (60 hectares) of his land for the rail tracks and for a railway station at Karamu junction.

A township was now destined to sprout around the railway line and on the 7 June, 1873,  the Hawke’s Bay Herald announced, “The name of the new town is to be Hastings. We hear it now for the first time…” 

A month or so later, Hicks subdivided the rest of his land into town and suburban sections for sale with an average of £30 per acre. Intriguingly, two thirds of the buyers in the new Hastings township were speculators from Napier. 

Hicks made a small fortune with his land sales and left Hawke’s Bay in December 1875. He eventually bought 800 acres at Pukekura, near Cambridge and called it Trelawney. In 1883 he married Mary Allan and had 13 children, and only returned to Hawke’s Bay occasionally.

By contrast Thomas Tanner became a dominant figure in Hawke’s Bay affairs. His 5,332 acre portion of the Heretaunga block was Riverslea, and he built a 22-roomed mansion there.  At various times Tanner was a member of the Hastings Town Board, Hastings Borough Council, and a Hawke’s Bay county councillor. He served on the Hawke’s Bay Provincial Council and was member of the House of Representatives for Waipawa from 1887 to 1890. He was a keen Church of England man and the pin oak outside the St Lukes Church in Havelock North is known as Tanner’s Oak. He died in 1918.

Depending on who you source, it was either Thomas Tanner or Francis Hicks or both, who named Hastings after Warren Hastings, a British colonial administrator, and the first Governor-General of Bengal in the British Raj in India. 

Apparently Tanner claimed publicly, including in a Hawke’s Bay Herald report in February 1884, that he chose the name and was the “Father of Hastings”. 

But head to the Hastings District Library, as I did, and in the stacks there is a laminated file “Hicks, F. (1994). The “Father of Hastings ” Francis Hicks: letters by his daughters.”  

This includes newspaper cuttings and hand-written letters and one written to the then Town Clerk on 21 February, 1967, by F.G. Claridge. She writes, “I cannot imagine why the Hastings people do not want to recognise my father (the Father of Hastings) do you?”   

F.G. Claridge went on to claim that Francis Hicks was the “Father of Hastings” and asked that the Hicks family be invited to the Hastings 100 year celebrations, I presume in 1973.

F.G. Claridge also referred to a Letter to the Editor, published in the Hawke’s Bay Herald Tribune in 1920,  and in the Library file from the first Mayor of Hastings 1886 -87, Robert Wellwood.  

“…There is no doubt,” wrote Wellwood, “that the late Thomas Tanner was the ‘father’ of the Heretaunga plains. He leased the greatest part of the plains from the natives in the sixties and afterwards acquired freehold. ….neither the late Mr Tanner nor myself was the ‘father of Hastings’, the honour belongs to the late M.J. Hicks who bought 100 acres on the  north side of what is now known as Heretaunga Street. (The 100 acres on the south side were bought by the late Mr James Boyle.)  Mr Hicks soon after cut his lot up for a township, giving it the name of Hastings. I presume after the renowned Warren Hastings.

“I take it that the man who owned the land and formed the township and gave it a name was the “father” of Hastings. I suppose I must be the Godfather having been the first mayor…..I am etc  R. Wellwood.  Hastings Dec 7th 1920. https://paperspast.natlib.govt.nz/newspapers/HBTRIB19201207.2.65.1

So is there an answer to this mystery?

Who was the founder of Hastings?

On a cold May evening I stood on the corner of Heretaunga and Karamu Streets, willing this most historic of places, to come alive. But apart from the occasional car and a cold wind knocking at my chest, there was not a ghost in sight, nor anything to acknowledge the area’s rich past.  

Undoubtedly Francis Hicks and Thomas Tanner both had pivotal roles to play in the founding of Hastings and could be equally honoured, along with the earlier Māori of the Heretaunga Block – but let’s not keep their stories tucked away in books, archives and stacks. Let’s have plaques, pictorial boards, monuments – something – to alert passers-by to the stories of our past and people who have walked in this town before us.

Hastings officially celebrates its 150th with a Council-organised commemorative weekend, July 7-9, and then ongoing events ending with the Blossom Festival in September

With special thanks to the Knowledge Bank for help with this article

Public Interest Journalism funded through NZ On Air


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1 Comment

  1. Would you provide an in-depth article about the original ‘founding fathers’ of Hastings please – the Mana whenua …. chiefs, families.

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